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Mendelssohn in Scotland

Fri Nov 6 2015

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Former OAE Chief-Executive Stephen Carpenter, now of Mendelssohn in Scotland, is doing a talk before our concert with Sir Andras Schiff. Here he outlines the content of that talk and the journey around Scotland that inspired some of his best-loved works. 


 

In 1829 Felix Mendelssohn had reached the age of 20. He had those two works of genius from his teenage years behind him: the Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and his parents – the rather stern Abraham and Leah Mendelssohn – decided that Felix should begin his Grand Tour. The unusual choice for the first stage of his tour was Scotland, rather than the sunnier destinations of southern Europe.

 

But on closer examination, Scotland was not such an unusual choice. There were two literary reasons for choosing it. The Mendelssohn family were avid readers of the novels of Sir Walter Scott. We know from Mendelssohn’s own library of books – which still exists and is in the possession of his great grand-daughter who lives in Eastbourne – that he read Scott in English. It was hoped that Felix would meet the great Sir Walter Scott when he was in Scotland, but the visit fell well short of expectations. The other literary lure to Scotland was the 3rd-century bard, Ossian, whom the Mendelssohn family had yet to learn was a fraud and actually the invention of the 18th-century Scottish writer, James Macpherson. Notwithstanding his bogus credentials, the works of “Ossian” were a great inspiration to many of the “Romantic” composers, including Mendelssohn whose On Lena’s Gloomy Heath for baritone and orchestra composed in 1842 sets texts by Ossian.

 

And there was another reason why Mendelssohn went to Scotland in 1829. In London, where he visited immediately before his journey to Scotland, was a trusted friend of the Mendelssohn family, Karl Klingemann. Klingemann was 10 years older than Felix, but the two were firm friends – in later life, Felix described him as his best and closest friend – and he would be the ideal travelling companion on the Scottish trip. There are only a handful of letters which Mendelssohn and Klingemann wrote home from Scotland, but they paint a vivid picture of two young men laughing, joking, sketching and writing poems (Klingemann was an accomplished poet and Mendelssohn many of his poems to music in his lieder). The two appeared to generally have a wonderful care-free time walking and traveling by horse and cart through the Highlands, and by steamer on the lochs and up the River Clyde.

 

My pre-concert talk will give a detailed account of Mendelssohn and Klingemann’s Scottish journey. It was a journey that would inspire two of Mendelssohn’s best-loved works: The Hebrides and his Scottish Symphony. Mendelssohn and Klingemann began their journey in Edinburgh where, at Holyrood Palace, the opening theme of the Scottish Symphony came to Mendelssohn.  After their disappointing visit to Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, they travelled through the Highlands to Oban and the Isle of Mull from where they took a boat out to the Isle of Staffa and Fingal’s Cave. I’ll be showing many of the fine sketches that Mendelssohn made during his travels, together with modern-day photos and videos of those same views which have changed little in the past 186 years, all with the accompaniment of Mendelssohn’s music. To find out more, go to www.mendelssohninscotland.com and, as a taster, take a look at this footage of Fingal’s Cave accompanied by Mendelssohn’s Overture.

 

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